Pathfinder Playtest Analysis IV – On Magic
This series of posts was made possible by the generous contributions of the following folks:
-Paco Garcia Jaen
-Justin Andrew Mason
The topic that differentiates fantasy from other genres, conceivably the most important component of the fantasy genre – what do I think about its implementation in PF Playtest?
Well, first of all, the sorcerer obviously needs something more as provided right now; but we’re not here to discuss classes, though the subject matter is entwined with them. To properly contextualize magic in PF Playtest, and how it has arguably been nerfed, let’s take a look at the game, the tone it evokes and its history. Please bear with me, this is going somewhere.
For the sake of simplicity, let us take a look at what magic can do in PF 1:
- Single-target Damage
- Area of Effect Damage
- Terrain Control (soft/hard)
- Crowd Control (soft/hard)
You get the idea – there is a whole lot magic can do, and historically, within the context and development of the games we play, this makes sense.
If you started playing before D&D 3.X, you’ll know why there weren’t many magic-users implicit in most settings, at least when compared to all other classes. (Excluding paladins, courtesy of their ridiculous minimum attributes required.) Living to the point of being able to cast 3rd level spells, arguably where the often-quoted quadratic growth of spellcasters kicks into full gear, was a SERIOUS achievement that required luck, skill, and potent allies. Up until then, spellcasters tended to be PITIFUL. As in: A housecat could kill you, and you probably won’t be soloing even a single wolf. Having a spellcaster *live* to tell the tale was an achievement – and being able to blast whole groups to smithereens with fireballs was a reward of the perseverance of both players and PCs.
Even then, the chassis of the spellcasting classes was so comparatively sucky, that ultimately, spellcasters remained horribly, painfully fragile. All those defense spells? They were all but required to survive the rigors of adventuring. Divine casters, in comparison, had weaker spells and limitations imposed on them. Remember, before channel energy, there was turn undead, which, for the most part, bordered on uselessness and was rather situational in its effectiveness.
Fast forward to 3.X, and we have still a comparably sucky chassis underlying the class, but we also have retained the harsh power of the old spells. So, what happened? A couple of things. First of all, 3.X and its follow-ups moved away from theater of the mind playstyle, towards a more tactical playstyle for many of its components. The characters also started growing in toughness beyond a certain level. (Yep, young ‘uns – at one point, you were basically almost stuck with your level 9 HP – and only got +2 per level after that!) While the new, continuous growth was more rewarding for players achieving new, higher levels, this also meant that the inherent fragility of characters ultimately was reduced. Seriously. Once you’ve first had your 500+ HP barbarian shrug off a Breath Weapon Admixture’d breath attack of a dragon, you’ll know what I mean.
Still, it’s not only the hit points and numbers that fostered the feeling of magic being OP.
The time-honored and most important limitation of any meaningful magic in games that cleave close to the tradition of D&D, whether it’s old-school or Pathfinder, would be the fact that it is limited by the tradition of vancian casting. At one point, you had to decide on whether to focus on maintaining defenses that very quite literally crucial to your survival, and damage/utility.
This *was* a meaningful decision, because random encounters were a thing. Resting was NOT a safe bet – not by a long shot. However, random encounters take up time; time many adult groups don’t have. When you’re in college or university, you can perhaps easily run 3 – 5 games a week, and random encounters, with the tactics and time it takes to run Pathfinder’s more complex dynamics, are definitely fun…but also time-consuming. If life catches up, and family, job, etc. demand ever-increasing shares of your valuable free time, though, a random encounter will suddenly feel…well, like filler, like grind.
As such, the slow and deliberate move away from random encounters, ultimately, is a matter of demographics growing up, in combination with the intrinsic focus of the system. A random encounter in an OSR game is much easier and faster to resolve – this is system-immanent. This move away from random encounters towards a more story-driven experience ultimately also changed how groups behaved, but its departure, its decreased focus on attrition, also stripped vancian magic of one of its most crucial checks and balances, the risk to rest. (Coincidentally, that’s also why we often see time-limits in modules – to demand urgency, to prevent the 5-minute adventuring day, but that’s another topic.) As a further aside, random encounters also eat up page-count, and considering the size of statblocks, their inclusion or lack thereof is also a consideration of cost-benefit-ratio being potentially off for more complex games.
Now, in the absence of the limitations imposed by the abundance of random encounters, players and GMs realized quickly that there needs to be a means to free up valuable slots to account for the demands of time limits (or the presence of random encounters, where they still exist) – and this brings me to one factor that was emphasized by design time and again, and probably one of the least liked components of PF1. At least I’ve never seen someone exclaim that these are what they really loved: Spells-in-a-can.
Whether they’re scrolls, wands or other items, there is a ridiculous amount of items that basically delimit magic utterly and completely. The option to exchange magic items for gold is one that actually is a rather radical departure from the assumptions of old, when crafting did have VERY strict limitations imposed upon it, when making a magic item was an achievement. Compare that to how many wands of cure X wounds, scrolls and similar throwaway spells your average level 10+ adventuring group will be hauling around to free up the precious spellslots of their clerics and wizards. The problem here is, that this delimited magic does ultimately trivialize the specializations of fellow adventurers.
Why bother with a rogue when you can cast quasi unlimited knock, detect secret doors and the like, when a combination of invisibility, silence and negate aroma will make your group god-like infiltrators?
Utility is often fielded as one of the most jarring examples of the power of magic – and the criticism is both justified and unjustified. You see, magic should be able to render you invisible, to allow you to climb that cliff, etc. It’s magic, after all!
It certainly should fortify you against scorching heat and the like, right? Depending on the type of game-style you prefer, the response will probably be a clear, kneejerk “No” or “Yes”, depending on aesthetics favored, when it probably should be a “Yes, but…”
On the plus-side, the sheer, vast utility of spells means that you don’t have to do as much preparing when venturing into dangerous areas. At the same time, it utterly trivializes terrain hazards and presents an issue for designers. Do you write module to assume that the whole group has access to fly speeds? If so, do you also assume that the group actually runs Fly as written? You ultimately can’t, at least not in most stories – and thus we get long and per se cool descriptions of hazardous terrain and unique challenges in high level modules, while only doing one thing: Bleeding one of a gazillion charges from a spell in a can item. These hazards once bled the powerful resource of spellcasters dry. Nowadays, they serve as inconveniences at best, but can’t be simply left by the wayside, because you can’t assume that a given group has access to them.
The other day, I was playing Witcher 3. There was this one scene, where space rips open, and temperature drops to lethal degrees. Your wizard ally generates a field wherein you don’t freeze, while monsters assault you. You defend the wizard, move towards the rifts, and slay monsters while the wizard tries closing the rifts. There is concentration involved, obviously, and it’s an instance of an encounter I could see translated to PF…in theory. De facto, the coolness of that encounter would be utterly negated by readily-available spell-in-a-can items – the system’s peculiarities get in the way of what would be an amazing encounter set-up.
So, how to resolve this issue?
In fact, PF Playtest already does this – half way: Rituals. If one thing in PF Playtest needs more “screentime”, needs to be expanded, it’s rituals. Trading time and easy access for the magic power – rituals are a time-honored tradition to generate magical effects beyond the capabilities of spells. Thulsa Doom could wreck whole continents, but he needed massive preparation. But how balance rituals to avoid exploitation there? A couple of options come to mind, first of which would be a corruption/favor mechanic, akin to what DCC uses. The downside here is that this would not fit PF2’s tone, which is traditionally high fantasy, and not sword & sorcery. It can be gritty and grimy, sure, but the unreliable and corrupting magic effects would radically alter the paradigm by which Golarian operates. As such, this would be out of the question. Gritty Golarian is still closer to Greyhawk than to Conan.
By imposing too steep a resource cost regarding time required to cast, we’d arrive once more at the 5-minute-adventuring day. By imposing too steep a cost in commonly available materials (like gold), we’d have a form of attrition that doesn’t reward a single character’s resource management, and instead targets the entirety of the group’s resources to power a single character’s escapades. Everyone who ever played a gunslinger in a gritty setting, where gold is scarce, will realize that it’s not fun having to beg for gold to use core class features.
The answer, to me, is pretty obvious: Fragility. Fragility in either or both the casting and effects. Sure, a mage can conjure forth a funny floating elevator to get down the vast chasm – but if his concentration ceases, everyone will fall. Are you sure you don’t want to send the climber down with the rope, have the fellow secure a path? This solution, as a whole, would allow for choice – in some instances, the magical solution would be the more viable one, but it would not overshadow the mundane ways to resolve problems. That is, obviously, just an example, and all such effects would require their own fixes. Want to limit personal flight to high levels and make the existence of flying mounts more viable – and all of that without eliminating flying? Okay, then establish a maximum distance the character can be from the ground, a height cap. Want to nerf invisibility? Make the target briefly disoriented after becoming visible…or perhaps, being invisible in bright light or darkness is very much obvious?
I’m obviously just providing examples here, but the essence is that magic should remain fun…but it also should adhere to rules that do not invalidate the mundane means to achieve goals.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter: Items. Ultimately, Resonance alone does not suffice as a solution regarding spells-in-a-can, as it only once more potentially generates 5-minute-adventuring days in this context. Instead, spells-in-a-can need to be severely limited in both availability and the means to use them, as well as which spells can be cast thus. Being potentially able to cast the spell is an easy modification, a first step, for example, that, in combination with Resonance, would allow archmages to still fling around spells through staves etc., while the “ritualization” of utility spells and limitations imposed on availability of the respective items can be translated to groups not drowning in spells-in-a-can items.
As soon as you get a handle on utility no longer being so ridiculously good and easy to abuse via spells-in-a-can items, you need to choose – and indeed, this brings me to another issue regarding potency.
Personally, I think it was high time that magic got hit with the nerf bat regarding its damage output. I am all in favor of that. However, as written, I think it may have gone a step too far. Magic, in a battle context, is artillery: It’s there to hit weaknesses regarding damage types and create Area of Effect damage, eliminating foes swiftly- It’s a limited resource for that reason. Fighters and similar martials will be better as dismantling single, tough foes, but magic is the ultimate mook/minion-sweeper, and is basically a shortcut through a long slog, while the potent enemies hit hard. Battle magic allows for a consolidation of forces and attacks. It offered, previously, both breadth and depth. Martials, on the other hand, at least when competently build, can go into depth – you don’t even want to know how much damage I’ve seen a single martial character dish out in PF1 last week-end. (Clue: 4 figures. In one round.)
(As an aside: This, obviously, is only possible…via magic. The buffing structure has been streamlined in PF Playtest, so I don’t expect the same level of ridiculous escalation in PF2.)
The discrepancy and notion that casters are OP is mostly based on trivializing non-combat options AND on being capable of dishing out AoE-attacks sans limits, or with very lax limits imposed. See, once more, the item issue. The problem, thus, has to be resolved in two ways to be truly satisfactory: Mages should retain their ability to cause mayhem in areas, control terrain, etc. – but they should be less reliable, much like artillery, than a proper martial. Conversely, the aforementioned changes to magic would automatically make martials matter more, but to truly be perfect, a broadened focus of options for mundane characters would help further even out the battlefield, and make them feel different. That’s the goal – difference, not necessarily discrepancy…though the fact that spells are a limited resource needs to be taken into account. Emphasis on *LIMITED*, for this is a main point here. The second, to make that abundantly clear, is that martials need fun stuff to do. The revamped skill system does help there, but giving them a few unique tricks, enhancing their breadth, would imho not hurt either.
Mages, however, also are sniper rifles. They, at least in PF 1, have a gazillion of save-or-suck tricks, and these, once more, can be easily tweaked. Damage-output, saves, means to more reliably shake them off in subsequent rounds – all screws that you can use to balance them. I honestly believe that, from rock-paper-scissors in monster vulnerabilities/immunities to all those means, PF Playtest and PF2 can achieve the goal of making magic still feel MAGICAL, while also creating a magical (hehe – sorry, couldn’t resist…) balance that can make the game stand out.
One of my readers, Delurm, commented as follows:
“1e had a funny thing to balance that magic though – segment casting time. Spells didn’t ‘go off’ on your init. You would subtract the level of the spell from your init and ‘start casting’ on your init – and the spell would go off at the later count. This gave enemies time to hit you (and disrupt the spell).
This makes low level spells valuable for damage due to speed – and keeps them from being used as ‘utility in a can’ – wands (as any spell 1-3) need to go away – potions – same, make specific spells available as consumables and put emphasis on scrolls being damaged via contact with water – bam magic back into balance without huge nerfs to spells.”
My response was as follows:
“You know, you’ve provided a really thought-provoking comment here! Thank you! It’s funny – we all enjoyed the tactics of segmented spells back in the day in my group, but when it went away, we kinda forgot about the whole notion of it. Particularly considering the tactical nature of PF Playtest et al, it’s actually puzzling that segmented spells haven’t made a resurgence, big time! It would also automatically change the relatively static initiative order and allow for some interesting coordination tricks!
Scrolls are a bit difficult, in that there are plenty of cultures where paper isn’t the preferred medium to carry spells, so that may warrant some further thought and probably wouldn’t be simply solved, as a concept, by water…but yeah, I whole heartedly agree that a resurgence of segmented spellcasting would help deal with the issue of low level damage becoming useless, while also helping reign in the utility aspect!”
So yeah, the introduction of segmented spellcasting would be an elegant way to keep low level damage spells relevant AND also help reduce the tendency to replace all low level spells with utility options.
Personally, I do think that a mage battlespell should be able to exceed martial damage output, as, unlike martial attacks, it’s limited, but it should similarly have clear instances where it’s simply not the best choice. It should, however, not thoroughly outclass martials.
Magic traditions and occult rules could be another flavorful means to balance magic. (“You can only ever cast a single spell 7 times per day. Metamagic feats, spells and effects that modify the spell, as well as spell-trigger and spell-completion items, as well as spells that are variations of one another at higher levels (such as summon monster VI and IX all count towards this maximum.” is, for example, a stipulation, a rule I imposed on a certain rune-based tradition in Golarion.) It’s a small thing, but considering all the rules imposed on the esoteric traditions in our world, it makes sense and renders magic more unique. As an aside: I would have very much loved to see rules akin to those presented in the Alchemy Manual Player’s Companion for the alchemist base class and was slightly disappointed to still see the kinda-abstract alchemy. But that may be the Witcher-fanboy in me.
What do you think? Do you think magic should be nerfed further? Do you think I’m missing something? Do you hate that magic seems to not be as omnipotent as before?